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Question

When COVID-19 hit, utilities had to act fast to adjust to the 'new normal.' But in the future, they'll transition back to more typical operations-- how will that transition 'back to normal' look?

Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst, Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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The utility industry has garnered well-deserved praise for its ability to act swiftly to adjust to the restrictions put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic. Customer shutoffs were paused, working with customers to keep their lights on during hard economic times became the norm, many parts of the utility workforce adjusted to virtual work or field work that included social distancing and other precautionary measures, and so many of the normal ways of doing things had to be rethought. 

But sometime in the hopefully not too distant future, the world will get back to 'normal.' While the adjustment to incorporate COVID-19 protocols was one area of important focus for utilities, it's time to start thinking, talking, and collaborating about what the transition back will look like. 

  • Will there be new challenges as we adjust back? 
  • What adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic will end up sticking around even afterward? 
  • How can customers, utilities, and other stakeholders alike learn from the experiences of 2020? 
  • What opportunities are there for making this transition as beneficial as possible to utilities, their employees, and their customers? 

We've spent so much of the year discussing these adjustments, but let's not get caught off guard by the return trip! Share your thoughts, ideas, and questions on the topic below. 

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The market has changed and quite dramatically given the COVID pandemic. Companies and institutions will be recognized by the way they have responded to this new situation and most importantly how they will come up with strategies that are consistent with the "new normal".

Leadership is, the most important driving factor. Proactive leaders, who understand what the "new normal" is demanding from their companies will emerge as the successful ones in the long run. 

The "business as usual" posture, heavily supported by regulations is not enough to cope with the huge challenges at stake. Value added services will be the "new animal".

​​​​​First of all, COVID-19 is not going away completely, so the new norm will include the rules for social distancing, health monitoring and upgraded safety protocols. Management will have to figure out the way to incorporate new operational requirements into the workflow and even workplace planning. Most certainly, backup protocols will have to be created to be set in motion in case of any major emergencies like the pandemic one.

  • What adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic will end up sticking around even afterward? 

By now, many organizations realized, that the majority of tasks that don’t require the worker’s presence in the field can be done remotely. I think, that the “Work from Home” culture will stick around for good now.

Additionally, a lot of attention shifted towards the independent energy resources, that can serve as a vital backup resource in case of grid instability, sudden outages, staff shortages, etc. This will most likely lead to faster development of the more complex grid, which will eventually become the free energy marketplace.

  • How can customers, utilities, and other stakeholders alike learn from the experiences of 2020? 

Backup plans and emergency protocols will become a much bigger deal now after we all witnessed the consequences of their absence. We all have learned to pay more attention to strengthening every link in the supply chain.

I think, that everyone has seen the importance of business process digitalization. Hopefully, the post-COVID workplace will be much better automated and more cloud-based than physical. Corporations will have to spend more on upgrading the IT back-end of their operations, to ensure their readiness for unplanned events.

  • What opportunities are there for making this transition as beneficial as possible to utilities, their employees, and their customers? 

Opportunities are plenty, first of all, from the perspective of making a workplace more comfortable for the employees and the company-wide operations more effective. The most important rule is not to rush the process of re-entry, get all the regulations down and work conditions ready. Communication is key to a successful transition. Customers and staff need to be updated on the state of events each step of the way, to avoid unnecessary tension and enhance relationships. Processes have to be sufficiently automated to prevent manual mistakes and keep all the operations running smoothly.

 

  • First of all normal is new normal. Just as all hijacking cause new normal in air travel, 9/11 new normal in security, Covid will being new normal in the way we work. In actuality normal is really not static. It is dynamic and always changes like fashion, food etc. Most of the time subtly. But there are events in life that create huge changes Covid is one of them.

 

  • Will there be new challenges as we adjust back? 

Of course. Social distancing will be with us for quite while. Covid marks the end of this great idea management consultants had..the open office idea. Wow when everyone coming to the office to work together in an open area is a great idea...the interpersonal relationships will increase productivity

  • What adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic will end up sticking around even afterward? 

Social distancing will be around for some time. Work from Home will be more permanent until some management consultants discover a new idea....wow everyone coming to the office to work is a great idea...the interpersonal relationships will increase productivity....and a "new" trend will start.

  • How can customers, utilities, and other stakeholders alike learn from the experiences of 2020? 

The biggest lesson to learn is resiliency. Utilities have lived in a business model that hasn't changed much in decades. Renewables has started the change. Covid has jolted utilities into recognition that profitability and staying in business is not as guaranteed as it once was.

  • What opportunities are there for making this transition as beneficial as possible to utilities, their employees, and their customers? Utilities have to become innovative in the way they do business, and develop new lines of business to stay profitable. Covid was/is certainly disruptive.....the next disruption FERC2222 is just around the corner.
Daniel DuBellay's picture
Daniel DuBellay on Nov 5, 2020

100% agreed. It's the new normal. The new added measures will be integrated to existing health and safety systems and operational procedures/workflows.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Nov 5, 2020

Ben - what new lines of services do you think are on the nearest horizon for utilities to pursue?  

Utilities have always planned their response to, and recovery from, incidents related to disasters and other major events. But the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced some unique requirements when it comes to safety protocols and resiliency planning. For example, FERC and CSA's ESCC are recommending daily wellness checks with mandatory temperature readings at arrival, at mid-shift, and when going off-duty, with a health survey for each field worker.

This is the New Normal. Along with social distancing and other procedures, it’s now incumbent upon utilities to proactively manage the potential risk of contamination to workers and the public. Utilities can leverage existing mobile workforce technology to support these new requirements, notably automated worker location (AWL) and contact tracing, daily health checks for public-facing workers, coordinated customer communication pre- and post-service call, including notifications if an infected worker has been at their home or in the area.

Resources:

1. "Proactive Planning and Customer Communications for the Next Pandemic", free on-demand Energy Central webinar. Clevest/Darwin Labs/Message Broadcast/Memphis Light Gas and Water (MLGW), July 2020

2.  FERC's Ressources for Pandemic Response Plans, May 2020

3. Resource Guide for Assessing and Mitigating the Novel Coronavirus, Canadian Electricity Association (CSA), Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), June 2020.

4. Darwin Labs partners with Clevest to provide front-line utility workers with COVID-19 health check technology, Energy Central, September 2020

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